Applying GTD to Email

Every time I start to tell people that I use Getting Things Done (GTD), I almost immediately get some variant of the question:

What do you recommend for someone with 2,500 emails in inbox???

Better spam filtering?

Seriously, though… I’d recommend you apply the GTD workflow to the individual emails. Start by deciding how far back any email could possibly still be relevant and archive everything older than that.

Next, read each remaining email quickly and simply decide whether any action is required.  If you take 10 seconds on each email just to make that one decision, you’ll be able to identify all the actionable emails in a few hours.  Each time you find an actionable email, use whatever your email system offers to collect them into a place you know is for actionable things.  Personally, I prefer using the “flag” feature in my email program, but just dumping them into a special folder would world just as well.  The details aren’t important: just be sure to get them out of your inbox, but marked in such a way that you can find them again later.  Archive anything which isn’t actionable.  Your inbox should now be completely empty.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you’re finished.  Next, go back through the actionable emails and just answer anything which requires a quick reply or some similarly quick and simple action¹.  In other words: apply the 2-minute rule from GTD to each email.

What’s left represents your actual work.  Set aside some time every day to work down the list of items and knock them out.  At this point, I’d be surprised if you had more than a a few dozen emails remaining, so it shouldn’t be too daunting.

Going forward, adopt the same process to all incoming email so that you wind up with an empty inbox several times a day.  Of course, while your inbox will be empty, you’ll still have those actionable emails set aside.  So, continue to set aside some time each day to respond to actionable emails.


The advantages of this approach are the same as applying GTD in general:

  • you are constantly aware of high-priority items
  • your attention isn’t needlessly yanked around all the time
  • emails you need to respond to don’t get buried by new, incoming email


I’ve applied this technique for both personal and work email for years now, and I get my email inboxes empty several times a day.  I’ve decided to respond to work emails about twice a day, and to personal emails about twice a week.  However, for urgent matters, I’m still able to respond instantly.  And, of course, it’s easy to adjust my reply times as I see fit, instead of being yanked around by my email instead.


¹ For anything from a real company with an “unsubscribe” link, use it!  Unless you really value the content, nearly all reputable companies will respect an unsubscribe request, and it will dramatically curtail the amount of email you need to sift through on a daily basis.

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